Migratory Bird Program
Conserving the Nature of America
ARCTIC ECOSYSTEMS IN PERIL: REPORT OF THE ARCTIC GOOSE HABITAT WORKING GROUP

HOW LARGE WERE WHITE GOOSE POPULATIONS BEFORE THIS CENTURY?


Before this century, accounts of abundance are narrative and anecdotal. None of the estimates was documented or quantified for comparison with modern methods. All of them precede the era of aerial surveys and none involved a coordinated, simultaneous air or ground survey. We summarize these below, but urge caution in interpretation because methods of numerical estimation are usually anecdotal and not statistically reliable.

LSGO

Bent (1962) writes of the "astonishing abundance" of lesser snow geese and blue geese (then described as two species) in the first decades of this century, particularly on the Gulf Coast and in Manitoba (i.e., what we now call the mid-continent population). The number of mid-continent LSGO in the 1930s was judged to be up to "3.5 million on the Gulf Coast in winter" (McIlhenny, in Gresham 1939), and "4-5 million in Manitoba in spring" (Soper, in Johnsgard 1974). McIlhenny (1932) estimated 1.25-1.5 million geese in a single flock. Johnsgard (1974) commented that these early estimates were "either wildly optimistic" or "mid-continent snow geese have declined greatly in recent decades". Yet Bent (1962) does not mention declines, nor does McIlhenny (1932) during his 50 years of close association with blue geese on the Gulf Coast.

Evidence of LSGO nesting colonies of sufficient size to corroborate these large migration and winter estimates of LSGO is lacking. Nesting areas were first visited by non-natives in 1928-30 (Soper 1930, Sutton 1931). Manning (1942) suggested hesitantly that there were 100,000 (presumably nesting) birds of each color on southwestern Baffin Island and 30,000 on Southampton Island (calculated from his counts and color ratios), but Kerbes (1975) termed Manning's estimates "minimum" because of the technique used (a coastal boat survey). Although these records suggest a fall flight of about 0.5 million birds in the late 1930s (similar to the first coordinated winter surveys in the Mississippi Flyway which estimated 440,000 (average of 1954-56) (Yancey et al. 1958), they are far short of 3.5-5 million! If there were that many birds during the first third of the century, what happened to them between then and the first coordinated winter surveys in the mid-1950s? We know of no evidence of massive disease outbreaks or die-offs, nor is there any hint of a massive hunting harvest (this was relatively early in the Migratory Bird Convention era and enforcement was strict).

ROGO

According to Bent (1962), ROGO were "the rarest of the geese which regularly visit the United States" by the 1920s. However, he mentions some evidence of their abundance prior to 1886, such as several thousand present each spring on the Missouri River (Montana). In California in winter, ROGO were "often quite common" and because of tameness "many are shot for the market". Ryder and Alisauskas (1995) cite Grinnell et al. (1918) as support for the suggestion that open market hunting may have contributed to the rarity of Ross' Geese at the beginning of the century.

GSGO

Concerning numbers of GSGO, early explorers wrote about "many thousands of white and grey geese" near present Québec City in 1535 (Jacques Cartier) and "many wild white geese" in the same area in 1663-64 (Fr. Paul Lejeune and Lalement) (Anonymous 1981, 1992). However, they “could not be called common” on the Atlantic coast by the late 1800s according to Bent (1962). The GSGO population was only 3,000-4,000 from the 1880s until the 1930s, and although it was suggested they were formerly more common, we found no specific statement of reasons for a possible decline (e.g., no evidence of decrease due to market hunting). A. Reed (pers. comm.) studied the ancient literature and gained the impression that GSGO were never abundant in the 1500s through 1900. Although hunting on the small population may have helped check population growth, he too found no evidence of excessive exploitation. He posed the question of whether a more severe climate in the Arctic during that period (the so-called Little Ice Age) may have kept numbers low because of frequent breeding failures.

Summary

What can we conclude about current versus former populations sizes? In the case of LSGO, abundance itself may have masked any trends; the difference between 0.5-1 million and 4-5 million would have been difficult to detect before consistent survey methods, as it is even now. Indeed, despite their abundance, contact with humans was infrequent because of the remoteness of breeding areas, and the limited number of staging areas along migration routes. In the case of ROGO and GSGO, migration concentrations and wintering sites overlapped with areas of early settlement which subsequently developed as human population centres in North America. Although their suggested former abundance apparently did not equal current population levels, a real decline appears to have occurred before this century and but only ROGO may have resulted from human activities.

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Last updated: April 11, 2012